I am currently in my 14th year of teaching and it's amazing to reflect on the advice I have been given over the years. Assistant principals, principals, colleagues, instructional coaches, experts in the field and so on. Over the years, I've had the privilege to work with some of the best in education. Their advice has come to me in either training, during observations in my classroom or working one-on-one with me to be the best teacher I can be for my students. Below is the list that transformed my teaching.
Do. Not. Engage.
During my first year of teaching when I was thrown to the wolves and left on a "tiny island" (you may know this feeling) with 4th graders ranging ages 8-14, I quickly learned that I needed to survive or die. I was in a new city, my keys were stolen on the first day of school, I cried everyday for the first week and the insults that were thrown to me each day were something I had to learn to ignore. There were all kinds of battles to fight and I did not want to give up. I scoured resources and asked for help from anyone who was willing to work with me. It was that year I learned a powerful, yet simple statement can go a long way. My Assistant Principal came to my room and modeled a math lesson and I noticed something profound. She was at the front of the room, writing a multiplication problem on the chalkboard and a student tried to get up from her chair. Mrs. Alexander turned to the student and said, "Destiny, go back to your seat. Thank you!" turned back to the board and kept on with the multiplication fact. I couldn't believe it, but Destiny actually sat down! She repeated this with a couple of other students who tried to get off task and they listened as well. That day, I learned the power of the words "thank you". Not because it's polite to say or that the student did what was asked yet. I learned the key was to say "thank you" (feign confidence) and move right onto whatever it was I was doing. Not giving the student the opportunity to argue. By moving to the next thing quickly, I communicate that I am not giving them the time of day. This also shows the rest of the class that I expect the kid to do what I asked. I often was worried about looking like I had zero control. By saying "do this, thank you." you are communicating that there is no room for the student NOT to do what is asked. It's a very subtle strategy that continues to work to this day. So simple! I suggest you try it if you are struggling with a student or students who are not following your directions or misbehaving.
Try this the next time a kid talks back when you ask him or her to do something. "I need you to stop flicking your pencil at the desk and finish your math sheet. Thank you. Is there anyone who is having difficulty completing the first few problems on this sheet?" The student may or may not stop what they are doing, but it's important to act as if the behavior did stop and move on. Then later, go back to the student and simply take the pencil without a word about it . Or motion to have him give it to you. Whatever you think would be best given your classroom culture. Soon they will realize that they need to listen to your directions.
90% of the Problems in the Classroom are the Fault of the Teacher
This one was hard for me to swallow at first. However, when I sat back and thought about it, the expert was correct. I am always the adult in the classroom. The one who can control the situation. For the first few years of teaching, whenever I found myself overwhelmed or feeling defeated, it was always related to student behavior/classroom management. This piece of advice was empowering. It meant that I could solve the issues in my classroom. I can't control others, but I can control the expectations I set and teaching students how to follow those. If it takes a week of trying to get to the carpet from their seats without interruptions and chaos, then it takes a week of doing it over and over until the class get it. If all of the methods I tried are still not working then it means I need to try something new! If a classroom is seemingly out of control, it's the job of the teacher to fix it. A classroom cannot run well without procedure and structure and if those two things are not in place then yes, it's my fault.
Trust me, I know this is difficult. Find resources to help you if you're struggling. If you see a teacher whose class is well-behaved, take some time and observe her with her students. Ask your instructional coach to model lessons in your classroom. I found that watching other teachers with my students is very helpful. Ask your principal if you can attend a classroom management professional development. Read books that come recommended by colleagues. Check out blogs of teachers who talk about classroom management. Smart Classroom Management is one of my favorite sites for advice. Books I still refer to are First Year Teacher's Survival Guide by Julia Thompson (a bit overwhelming at first, but amazing! So many good things to help you get organized) and The First 6 Weeks of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.
If Something Isn't Working, You Practice Until They Get it All Right
My second best piece of advice brings me to my third. Practice. Practice. Practice. It was once suggested to me to not even attempt teaching academics until I have finished teaching the procedures and expectations in my classroom. And I will admit, I do not like the beginning of the school year because of this necessary evil. It just feels so boring to me and if it's boring to me we know it's torture for the kids. Going over the syllabus, practicing using the assignment books, starting over a bunch of times because they are not listening to each other during classroom conversations. I get it. It's not very engaging and the days feel long. However, it's imperative! If you put in the time to do this you save yourself so much. Do not forget, if it's in the middle of the school year and you feel like your students are all over the place, go back to this! This is not something you do only at the beginning of the year. You do this whenever it's needed.
There have been plenty of times in January or March when I had to stop lessons early in order to set aside time for students to get out their assignment books. I will read directly from the board their assignment, students copy word for word and then I go around and check everyone's books. I take the time to make a list of who does not have an assignment book and email parents that night to ask them to please remind their child to bring it to school tomorrow.
Building Relationships with Kids is the Key
This should probably be number one and a piece of advice that I figured out on my own because it's such a huge part of what we do. By taking the time to get to know each one of our students, we are showing them that we care. If they believe us that we care, they will do whatever we need them to do because they know we have their best interests at heart. They understand that it's my job to set them up for success. So when I have to move them away from a friend, I say "It's because I love you and want to set you up for success." Knowing students well also helps me to know how to communicate with them, when it might not be a battle I want to pick and how to help them when they are struggling with friends, academics, etc. Connecting with students on a personal level also makes for a more enjoyable school year! I love hearing about my students lives outside of school. They are so funny and remind me of a time why I became a teacher in the first place.
Some ways I connect with my students is by asking them about what they did over the weekend or after school. I follow up about a game they had or a performance. I have a public teacher Instagram account. They love peering into our lives as well ;) I ask about what they like and bring that into my lessons whenever possible. At our school, we do project-based learning, so there is often outside of school activities we do as a class which helps us all form bonds. When I am teaching writing, I use a lot of my own life examples and get personal. I teach 6th grade and our current project is writing and performing spoken word poetry. I needed them to open up and get personal with their writing, so I did exactly that. In front of a bunch of 6th graders can feel intimidating at times, but it's so important for them to see us as humans who have just as much going on in our personal lives as they do.
Make Time for Yourself
This is also really important. It took me 10 years to learn having a life that does not involve teaching is imperative to my happiness. When I took the job I am currently at now, I drove from Pennsylvania to California alone and had 2 weeks to think about what happiness meant to me and vowed that when I got to San Diego, I was going to start doing those things. I'm not saying you need to go to these extremes and pack up for a cross-country solo trip, but if you feel like your life is lost in teaching then take time to reflect on what makes you happy. I remembered that I loved learning Spanish and that music fills my heart and traveling helps me to feel alive. So since that trip across the country, I enrolled in Spanish classes, traveled to all different kinds of counties and US cities and now I am learning the piano. I like taking classes that relate to what I love because it holds me accountable for leaving school to do something that makes me happy. I also enjoy staying healthy, so me and my friends makes dates to workout and get brunch. I love to write, so I have journals for all different things: a workout journal, a daily happiness journal and a passion planner. I also enjoy writing this blog!
What do you love to do? What used to make you happy before you even left for college? When was the last time you truly enjoyed yourself? What were you doing? What hobbies have you always thought about trying, but still have not?
And finally, know that you've got this. There is a reason you are a teacher and you can do this. I believe in you and so do your students. There will be tough times, but there will also be amazing, unbelievably inspiring and heart filled moments that make these struggles all worth it. When those moments happen, write them down. Save the email from the parent that brought happy tears to your eyes (burn the ones that made you cry). I have a box for notes from my students. Whenever I am having a particularly hard day, I open that box and read the first few notes I pick out. Reach out to an old student and see how they are doing. Remind yourself of the good that comes from being that special person in children's lives.
I hope this advice has helped you in some way. I wold love to hear about what has worked for you in your classroom! By sharing our experiences together, we can support each other in making our school year awesome!
Recently, I felt like there is a lot of negativity surrounding teaching or.. maybe it's me and I am just so super stressed that I feel like there is a ton of negativity and really, everyone is doing just fine! Whatever the case may be, I felt the need to write a list of reasons why I love teaching. I want this year of mine to be better than all the rest and this seems like a good place to start.
When I first decided to become a teacher almost many, many years ago, I made that decision based on the fact that I could be creative. I was excited to make lessons and activities that would create a fun learning environment and also be fun for me! Even when I was teaching at schools that did not allow for too much flexibility, I always found a way to bend the rules or found time to implement a fun, hands-on leaning activity for the content I needed to teach. Within a few years (and some experience under my belt), I was able to find schools that really valued my creativity and now I am at a school where I get to write my own curriculum! Teaching allows for the creativity side of me to flourish and I really love that about my job!
Make a Difference
Teaching allows me to come home everyday and know that something I did within those 7 hours made a positive difference in someone's life, even if I am unaware of it. Whether it was teaching a new concept, giving good advice or facilitating a conversation between 30 kids where they were able to learn from each other, I know something good happened and I was a part of it. I got into teaching because I wanted to be creative and I think what keeps me in the classroom is the fulfillment I get from being a positive person in the lives' of children. Last year was a really rough year. I thought since it was my 12th year in the classroom, I wouldn't have some of the same feelings I had my very first year of teaching, but I did! I was worn down by abnormal circumstances. I got down on myself because I thought I wasn't being the best teacher I could be for my kids and coming to school somedays felt like a chore rather than the privilege that it is. I decided that at the end of the school year, I would write a letter to my students telling them about how amazing they are and what a wonderful year it was that we had together. Some of them had tears in their eyes when I read it out loud to everyone. There was a 5th grade graduation that day and the love and appreciation I felt from my students and their parents was a feeling I will never forget. Sometimes we need validation in what we are doing and that is okay. We will not always get it and that is okay, too, but we need to always remind ourselves that we are making a difference.
How many people can go to work each day and say it's fun? Not many that I know of. People are always saying "Love what you do and you will not work a day in your life". Even though teaching is a TON of work, it's also something I love to do and so it does not feel like a regular job. I get to laugh with the kids and be reminded on a daily basis of what it means to be young and excited about the silliest things. There are so many examples of this in my career, and some that stand out are: when the scholastic book box was delivered and my entire class gave it a standing ovation to it (see my IG account for that one!), when I returned after being sick for a few days, I got an applause for coming back, celebrating a book character's birthday and singing the "Happy Birthday" song to a nonexistent person, traveling to Washington, DC and experiencing the memorials and museums through the eyes of 10 year olds, an applause when I finish a really amazing read aloud, fidget spinner challenges the last week of school, coloring and pasting fun activities together - and the list goes on! Being a teacher brings out the inner child in you!
I read a Facebook post from a friend and I absolutely loved it. She was talking with someone and the person was going on and on about how unfair it is that teachers only work part of the year, have summers off and all these breaks, great hours, etc. She turned to him and said, "Yeah, it is. Sucks you didn't choose a profession with the same benefits." Another teacher had a similar conversation and simply stated that he was collecting overtime throughout the summer. We work hard throughout the school year and only a teacher can really understand the absolute need for a spring break and summer break. The kids need a break from us and each other! And to our benefit, we still get to collect a check while sleeping in, reading our favorite novel, basking in the sun, traveling around the world, or walking around the malls when the crowds are all at their jobs. Heck, I even get excited about being able to schedule a dentist appointment! So as much as we get crap for this, I LOVE that we get so much time off. For a long time, I spent it making more money and adding to my income. And granted, for the first 8-10 years, I put in my time and worked in my classroom during most breaks, but now, I am living it up! This summer I traveled throughout Asia, I am going to Colombia to practice Spanish during Thanksgiving and next summer I hope to plan a cycling trip through France and visit a friend in England. Because I am a teacher, I am doing all of this on a teacher's budget, but that is what adds to the adventures. We put in our time to enjoy our summers off and holiday breaks. I will never let anyone make me feel guilty for that. When people tell me how great it is that teachers get so many days off, I smile and say, "I know!"
We Get 2 New Years
The start of every school year is a new beginning and I love it because it's a new opportunity for me to plan fresh goals and check in on ones I made January 1st. Tomorrow is my first day of school and I have my outfit laid out, fresh, healthy food in the fridge, a morning workout planned and workout clothes ready to go for 5am. I have my planner ready for Day 1 written with a fresh set of flair pens and it's a new start for 27 kids that are entering our classroom tomorrow. There is something invigorating about fresh starts! I love that I get to also start over as a teacher again! I get to do what I didn't do so well last year better this year! I get to reinvent ideas that I was not so excited about and I get to look forward to the ones that were super fun! I get to also look forward to rereading my favorite books to the class and wait to see their responses, I get to share thoughtful quotes with them and teach them all the important things I taught previous classes and witness their attitudes and opinions. I get to be a part of a whole new group of kids' learning and achievements. With every new school year, I am given the opportunity to become a better teacher than I was the previous year and I am given the time before school starts to plan and prepare for how that is going to happen.
I Get to Live Out My Passion
Very often, I speak with people who are trying to fulfill a passion after work or when they have time. Their jobs are not fulfilling and sadly, they know it. As teachers, we are so incredibly lucky to be able to know what our purpose is in life and go for it. I don't think many teachers realize how few people get to spend their entire day living out a passion. There are plenty of reassuring moments. When a student ran out of the room crying because a handful of kids laughed at her and I stopped the math lesson to discuss why that is not an acceptable way to behave in our classroom or in society and 20 minutes later, long after I have stopped talking and the kids are having their own conversation about it, I can tell that they get it. And then months later, I stopped and realized that they had all shown compassion, empathy and consideration towards that student since the conversation and tears were brought to my eyes, I knew that this is where I am supposed to be and without a question, this is what I am supposed to be doing. I am so sure that all of you have had plenty of moments like this one I describe. It's what our job is about. We can teach the standards, we can teach the math facts, we can teach kids how to read, but it's in the moments where we teach them how to be good people that the true hard work has been accomplished.
In conclusion, if you are ever down about teaching and aren't sure why you got into the profession in the first place and your hundredth Google search of "What else can you do with a teaching degree besides teach" comes up dry, or, if you are being inundated with negativity about the profession, please stop and think about why you love what you do. And if anything on my list rings true to you, stop by and have another read. Here's to you and me and our next new school year together!
"The eyes behind silence get a glimpse into the realities of the unknown." - me
As I was thinking about how to describe my (too short of a) time in Tokyo, I decided on peaceful observations. I feel it's quite fitting as I did not have much to say (giant language barrier) and the calm and mellowness of the people was contagious. I felt like I was walking on clouds the whole time without a care in the world. Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly), few people in Tokyo speak English. And, there is something to be said about keeping your mouth shut and simply taking in your surroundings. So not being able to communicate was not really that terrible. The city and metro is easiest enough to navigate and pictures really do speak a thousand words!
For me, being in Tokyo was like being in another world which is a feeling I haven't experienced before when traveling abroad. While in Costa Rica or Panama, for example, things were different, but I had a reference to the language and I could figure out menus, street signs, etc due to the fact that they use the same letters as English and a lot of the words are similar enough to figure things out. Generally, the people act the same as I am used to. You can look at a person and guess how s/he is feeling. In Tokyo, I had no clue what people were thinking or feeling. Pretty much everyone had no expression on their faces, were reserved and kept to themselves. However, they all were friendly, patient and helpful. As soon as someone realized I was trying to communicate with them, they were more than willing to try and work with me. They waited while I pulled out my phone to type in my translator app and then answered as best they could or took out their phone to let me read the Japanese they translated. Staying in a hotel that was outside of the traditional tourist areas was also a great (unplanned) idea. Where I was staying was the only hotel around. (I found it on Airbnb, but booked it through booking.com). I definitely was an outsider and could feel that with the curious stares both from adults and children. Except, I didn't feel that being an outsider was anything bad. People were just wondering what I was doing there.
One of my favorite things to do at the end of a long day and after the sun had fully set, was take the metro to Shinjuku station and then walk 45 minutes home. I loved it so much because this was when the streets became even more quieter than during the day. The weather was perfect and I could only hear my footsteps, the humming of a bicycle quietly riding by me or an elderly lady watering her plants. If any cars came down the street, they drove very slowly and cautiously around me. Occasionally, I would see a mom pushing her child in a stroller heading home or with her child strapped to the back of her bike. Every night, people were making their way home in a place that felt like the perfect world. Everyone follows the rules, is conscientious of each other and respectful of their environment. I have always been a rule-breaker of sorts and actually, when someone tells me notto do something, that's what I end up wanting to do most even if the thought never crossed my mind before. So I was surprised at how much I appreciated this aspect of the country. I guess I never really considered what it would be like to live in a place where the rules weren't questioned or generally broken because I grew up questioning all the rules and that was perfectly acceptable in a lot of ways. Hell, I teach my students to question everything though I like to call it critical thinking ;-) The last book I read with my class this school year wasA Wrinkle in Time, and I swear, this place felt like Camazotz (an awesome debate my students had was whether Camazotz is, in fact, the perfect place or not). Later in my trip, when I was at the home of a lady named Yuka, she was explaining to me that Airbnb had been outlawed in Japan starting June 15 and everyone was informed on June 1. She told me she wondered why they didn't give more notice and then said to me "It's the rule so we have to follow it" and then shrugged her shoulders. I don't want to forget the relaxed, contented and calmness I felt the entire I was there. I learned al to in the short time and hope to make it back soon to do all the things I now have placed on my Tokyo To-Do List.
A lot of learning happens during read aloud and I think there is a misconception that read aloud should be a time of only quiet listening. While listening obviously is important during this time of day, talking is equally valuable to students' learning. When I was teaching third grade and did guided reading groups, I would often refer to the strategies students displayed during read aloud and connect it to what was being practiced in the small group. It was really helpful for kids to be able to have that model to think back and refer to. In fifth grade, I teach kids through modeling how to participate during read aloud.
There are two skills that can be practiced during read aloud and those are SPEAKING and READING COMPREHENSION.
"We are here to listen to the story and share our thoughts about the characters and what is happening to them. What we do in Socratic Seminar, we will also be doing during read aloud."
Listening, Speaking, Reading then Writing. Those are the levels of understanding that we work hard to achieve in our classrooms. After spending 5 years teaching fifth graders, I learned that children this age still have difficulty explaining their thinking in a concise and organized way. Although we know that kids love to talk, few know that they actually need practice speaking so that they convey what they are thinking.
Reiterating and Questioning: When I hear a child having difficulty explaining their thinking, I tend to reiterate what I think they are trying to say. It's important for children to have a model example of how to speak especially when in a situation where there is a group conversation and others want to express their thoughts, too. Unfortunately, we don't have all day and it's important to get it out quick and easy! Do not be afraid to tell your students that this is a time where you will be helping them to practice speaking.
"Remember boys and girls, the reading strategies we talk about and practice during read aloud are the same strategies we should be using when we read books on our own."
Questioning and Using Text Evidence: When I first started teaching, I was afraid to call a student out for sharing a prediction that made absolutely no sense with what was happening in the story. I thought, well how can a prediction be criticized since everyone knows it will soon be confirmed or denied anyway. Also, I felt bad telling a kid their prediction was definitely not going to happen. Later in my career, I realized that I was doing children a disservice by always "agreeing" that their prediction could possibly take place in the story. So I began asking kids to give me evidence from the story that would support their prediction. If they had trouble coming up with evidence, I then suggested they revise their prediction. Oftentimes, just by asking for evidence students will revise their predictions right away. Also, if I don't respond at all, other students will chime in and explain how that probably wouldn't happen because of xyz in the story.
Thinking Aloud: Even if I had read the book before, I am, of course, always thinking about the reading. I find it extremely beneficial to share with students what goes on in my mind during read aloud. This can start conversation or, at the very least, make the kids aware that I am actually thinking while reading. I make connections with other texts, share what I am visualizing, discuss things that happened earlier in the story or anything that comes to mind really. It is a great example to show children that we don't just absentmindedly read through stories! Sometimes I will even ask the students what they were thinking during a certain part of the story just because I am curious.
Just letting kids be aware that read aloud is a time for thinking and discussing gives them the opportunity to check their understanding and be more engaged in the reading. What are some strategies you use in your classroom during read aloud?
I remember when I first decided that I wanted to teach my 5th graders how to conduct research in order to write a 5 paragraph essay. I was overwhelmed with where to even start! I know that kids are highly motivated when they have choice and are excited about their learning, and so I knew it would be important for each child to choose their own topic of study. Even though I would be modeling each step along the way, I did not want to assign them their topic. To guide students in choosing a topic, I always tell them a subject to choose a topic from.
For example, for years, I had students choose a state they wanted to research while I modeled researching Alaska. For the first time this school year, I asked students to choose a topic related to WWII while I model with Japanese Internment Camps. I feel this gives them a sense of interest and independence when they are able to choose for themselves what topic they will be spending their time digging through books and talking about with experts.
When creating a process for conducting research, I also wanted to provide students with a list of steps that they could use later on in middle, high school and even college. The steps had to be simple enough to work for any topic and any level of topic. So it had to be simple, but also have potential for students to gather lots of information.
Below are the 6 Steps to Research
1. Decide on the Topic
I provide structure of choice by assigning a subject such as a state or topic related to a time period in history. This is helpful for when you are modeling steps 2 and 3.
2. List the Questions you want to Answer about your Topic
I usually tell the students to come up with at least 20 questions. The more questions they have, the easier it will be to write the 5 paragraph essay. Also, I remind students to ask open-ended questions and to start with who, what, why, when, and how. No "yes" or "no" questions.
3. Categorize your Questions
This step can be a little difficult for students if their questions are very basic or if they have less than 20. I sometimes will support students by discussing with them which categories they want to include (tell them to choose at least 4) and then list the questions. Reversing steps 2 and 3 helps those who are stuck on creating questions that will provide a decent amount of information.
4. Answer all of the Questions
At this step, I have students create Research Collection Folders in order to ORGANIZE all of this information. Each file folder uses library card pockets to hold the color-coded index cards. Each pocket is a category and on each separate index card, students write their questions on one side. Afterwards, students write the information they find that pertains to the questions they asked.
5. Add New Information to the Categories
I suggest for students to choose the categories that are most interesting to them and read about it in their books then jot down any interesting new facts they learned.
If you would like to implement this into your teaching, purchase the entire 4 week unit (if you teach writing everyday) which includes over 100 pages of scripted lessons that follow a Writing Workshop model, anchor charts, teacher writing examples so you can model for your students the mini-lessons, conferencing tips and more!
Author, Julia Tarquinio
Join me as I share about teaching 6th grade Humanities in a Project-Based School. Always keeping it real and helping you feel like it's not you and you're not alone!